#6: 12 Angry Men (1957)

It might seem an odd choice for Sidney Lumet to make his directional debut with a film that largely takes place in just one drab room. Not exactly the best way to attract critical attention, you’d think. Nevertheless, 12 Angry Men, his first feature length work, is a courtroom drama that plays out almost entirely within one small jury room. Twelve men, of various temperaments and backgrounds, debate whether to send a young man to the electric chair for murdering his father. The vote needs to be unanimous, yet Juror #8 (the only name by which we know Henry Fonda’s character until the closing minutes) is the one vote for “not guilty”. This enrages the other men, who all see it as an open and close case. Yet this juror will not be swayed, and demands the men consider more closely the fate of this young boy’s life, rather than the demands of their social lives. 
Tense, gripping, intelligent, yet totally devoid of action, this film is dependent on dialogue for effect. First aired as a television play, 12 Angry Men is certainly “talky”, and if you need a few explosions to keep you interested in a plot, well this just isn’t the film for you. But for you fence-dwellers, don’t let that put you off. This is a study in the art of argument and persuasion, but you’re helped along the way, and there’s no need to worry about not following the proceedings. There aren’t any names to remember, all the jurors referring to each other as ‘that gentleman over there’, and even the witnesses are simply the ‘lady’ and the ‘old man’. 
If there is any weakness in the film, it’ll be the fact that it has possibly the most predictable plot around. You know exactly what’s going to happen, although there are minor twists which keep the experience enjoyable. You at least want to see how it all plays out.

What’s most impressive, however, is that out of 96 minutes only 3 are shot outside of the one room, and yet we do not tire of it. Lumet uses the space to great advantage, moving the camera between characters and shots expertly so as to keep up a sense of motion and momentum, even though everyone is sitting down. Towards the end there is an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia as the camera steadily creeps closer to the faces of the jurors with each shot, not perceptibly, but enough to heighten the tension and drama; no need for bombs or car chases here. No, instead all the men are sat and talking for much of the film and yet we don’t particularly notice, as we’re too busy deliberating the emotional development of each character. While the general plot is predictable, it’s the way in which the characters interact and consider the arguments put before them that make this film so memorable, and the main reason it ranks so highly on lists such as these. For me it’s a one-watch film though, as once now I know how and when the characters make certain decisions, the magic is mostly gone. Still, it’s worth that first watch.

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